Archive for January, 2015

The Courage to Turn

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

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Mark 1:14-20

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A.    The Church Forms the Story

Do you feel like you are loosing your grip on the pigskin of life?  Do you sense that you are loosening your grasp on the football of existence?  Do you wonder if the air has gone out of you?  That you are a couple of spiritual pounds of air pressure short of divine regulation?  In a word, if I may, do you experience a little late January…deflation?  Aiming at conflation and avoiding inflation with others across the nation do you experience deflation?  Do questions keep hounding you, even after you have repeated:  ‘I don’t know.  I have told you everything I know.  No. Nope.  No Sir.  No.’ (No, no, never, never…) Are you lower than a wet, deflated, muddy, cold football in the bowels of Gillette Stadium? 🙂

Well then, tune in for 20 minutes, turn on for 2100 words and hear the good news in 7 verses!  Turn to something ancient, good, holy and true:  Mark 1: 14-20.

The passage from Mark read a moment ago looks back forty years.

Mark is writing in the year 70 or so.  Jesus ministry in Galilee begins in the year 30 or so.  What is remembered across four decades?  (What do you remember about January 1975? What do you remember from forty years past?)

Very little.  Nothing about the time of year in which Peter and Andrew found the courage to turn, to leave their nets.  Nothing about the precise setting in which they chose to turn and follow.  Nothing about the manner of their discourse  with the Master.  Nothing about the reactions of families.  Nothing about the effect on the fishing business.  Nothing about what caused, in this idealized recollection, such a sudden change.  No, at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, as at its middle and at its end, we hunt in vain for clear memory of Jesus.  The Gospels allude to the history of Jesus but they are not written to tell the history of events forty years past.  And, in fact, they do not.  A reading of the Gospel that tries primarily to upend the Gospels for such an alien agenda, misses the meaning of their message.

Because.  The scene before us today is an idealized memory, the memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Tiberian shore.  The story told today comes out of, is, as the wise men say, formed by, the church forty years later, shaped and formed by the church of the year 70, for reasons quite other than interest in history or biography or hagiography.  The Gospel has bigger fish to fry than the Tiberian fish of April 30ad in the nets of Aramaic speaking laborers.  The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, not Jesus.  The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, the Son of God, not Jesus.  The Gospel presents Jesus Christ, the crucified.  A powerful voice, a personal encounter, a perplexing adventure in faith—the church formed our text out of its own early experience.

The Gospel is not about Jesus, it is about you.

Today’s passage was formed in the life of the early church.  Somewhere in the lost past, all of the detail now worn away like the memory you do not have of what you were doing, eating, wearing, saying, fearing, praying in January of 1975, somewhere in the lost past something happened over time to bind Simon and Andrew to Jesus.  The church needed to remember this, and so, in this idealized, skeletal, and didactic way, the church did so.   What is remembered, with accuracy or without, is recalled to meet a pressing need in the fragile life of a suffering church (repeat).  If we miss this formative effect of the church on this material—the material mattered to a church struggling with the grim and glorious matter of life and death—then we miss the point.  Then the sacred Scripture becomes even for the church what it becomes in other settings—parlor game fodder, material for debate over beer and skittles.  But for us, here, the Scripture is the very Word of God.

Something frightening and powerful is at work here.

What crying need does the church experience, in the years near 70ad that occasions the forming of this scarecrow text?  Why would the church want, at the very outset of the Gospel, to remember the hurt of leaving, and its requirement of the courage to turn?  Think about the hurt of leaving.  It hurts to leave.

Life in faith means difficulty.  It hurts to leave the womb.  It hurts to have those first teeth leave their gums for the daylight of dinner and dentistry. (My friend the dean of Dentistry and I introduced ourselves one evening on an elevator, to which our fellow traveler replied—“Great.  Here I am riding along with the two things I hate most, dentistry and religion!”) It hurts to watch your daughter get on the bus and leave for kindergarten. It hurts to see your son take the family car and leave for the evening with a young woman you do not know well or fully trust.  We have been around college towns all our lives: it hurts to leave your parents and go in the dorm, to carry the sweaty boxes up the stairs, to fiddle with room arrangements.  Here at BU on Labor Day, it gets to the point that I can not look at the same repeated scene: a dad and mom, hugging their boy goodbye, and leaving town.  It was a holy, frightening, powerful scene.  Like our Bible reading today. Now that we have physically left home and in are in college, say, we may need to turn, to turn our minds and hearts and souls toward the challenge of this new situation, really to turn, to leave home in spirit as well as body.  The fall term freshman year you physically leave home.  But now the snow is falling. The spring term freshman year you spiritually leave home.  You begin to fashion another part of your identity.  What an adventure!

The Bible is not about some oddball potpourrie of cluttered historical facts regarding fishing rights near Capernaum in the first century.  The Bible has bigger fish to fry.  Even regarding fish the Bible has bigger fish to fry, as Gershwin said of Jonah, which is the outreach edge, the evangelism and ecumenical high water mark of the Prophetic tradition, the inclusion even of the Ninevites:”

It ain’t necessarily so

He made his home in that fish’s abdomen—

It ain’t necessarily so

Today’s story is about turning.  The gospel gives the courage to turn.

 Somehow, in the life of the early church, leaving became an issue for attention.   How could it not?  Look at all the leave-taking in the formative early period.  Jesus leaves life.  Peter leaves Galilee.  Andrew leaves home.  Paul leaves Judaism.  The church leaves Palestine.  Every time they turned around, someone was leaving nets.  Someone was turning.  Someone was turning up, turning around, turning out, turning down, turning.  To everything there is a season—turn, turn, turn.

The church remembered or crafted this scene out a dire need to teach disciples that discipleship bears a certain cost, and a certain cast: now and then one is invited to summon the courage to turn.  The life of faith is an adventure, but an arduous one.   Faith, the gift of grace, when accepted and lived will ineluctably lead to risk.  Risk is a part of what we mean by faith. 

 B.    Mark Tells the Story

Returning to Mark for a teaching moment.  We have followed Luke in 2013 and Matthew in 2014.  Now the lectionary guides us through Mark.  Notice, as you have in other settings five personal interests, five finger prints, present in this first chapter, but carried through the length of the Gospel, which you will hear this year:

1.     A Secret

Mark’s messianic secret is a reminder to us that following the Christ means leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar, the present for the unforeseen future, the ready and easy for the unknown.  His is not a cozy Christ.  His Christ is One who calls upon us to summon the courage to leave. (1:24, 1:34, 3:12, 1:43, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26, 8:30, 9:9, 7:24, 9: 30, 10:48 [total 12, at least])

 2.     Galilee of the Gentiles

The interest in evangelism, out of which the Gospel is written, is imprinted upon us in this very early passage.  When you hear Galilee, think un-churched, think, outsider, think the nations, think the unreligious.  With Paul, Mark asserts that Christ had died for the ungodly.

 3.     The Cost of Discipleship

Mark reminds us that transformation begins with the courage to leave.  The moment of letting go and leaving is both awesome and agonizing.  Ask Abraham, Sarah, Moses; ask Amos, Micah or Jeremiah; ask Peter, Andrew or James; ask Paul, Silas or Barnabas.

4.     Jesus Christ, Crucified

The suffering that Jesus endured was to be a watchword and warning for the first Christians.  Mark teaches in this passage that at the very outset of the journey there is the experience of loss and bereavement that comes with leaving, changing, with turning

5.     Apocalyptic Right Side Up

In sayings like this (‘I will make you fishers of men’)—in the calling of disciples, there is a harbinger of what is to come.  Mark tries to put the Christian hope right side up, (perhaps correcting for his community, the reading today from 1 Cor. 7, a time grown short and a form passing away), culminating in the warning of Mark 13 that of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the Son, but the Father only.

Here is the Gospel hand reaching for you in 2015—holding a secret, loving the Gentiles, counting the cost, preaching the cross, right-wising apocalyptic.

C.  We Are Invited to Live the Story

It is not just the church that formed this passage that knew about turning.  It is not just the Evangelist who tells the story of departure that knew about turning.  We too know about turning.  Leaving nets, neighbors, niceties.           It takes a courage to turn.  Students live and know this.

From 40 years ago I recall a courageous Spanish student, Guzman Garcia Arribas, who turned away from Francisco Franco and turned toward a freer life.  From 30 years ago I recall a graduate Syracuse Forestry student, Keith Parr, who turned from studies to service with his Air National Guard in the Gulf War.  From 20 years ago I recall an architecture student, Barry Jordan, who turned and traveled with us in mission to Honduras.  From 10 years ago I recall a BU undergraduate, David Romanik, who left the nets of historical study to turn to ministry in the Episcopal Church.

Last week we remembered the struggles of Rosa Parks, Andrew Young, Edward Brooke, Martin Luther King, who found the courage to turn enshrined in the best of our traditions:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought;

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents go awry

And lose the name of action

The courage to turn is the courage to lay hold, to register, to sign up, to rent to buy, to take on real weight.

To lay hold of faith, you may just have to turn.  You may have to leave the nets, or leave the nest.  To lay hold of the future you have to let go of the past.  To lay hold of life we may need to summon the courage to leave.  To leave the inherited for the invisible.  To leave the general for the particular.  To leave existential drift for personal decision.  To leave the individual for the communal.  To leave renting for ownership.  To leave auditing for registration. (Some of us have been auditing the course on Christianity long enough.  It’s time to register, buy the books, pay tuition, take the course for credit, and get a grade!)  To leave engagement for marriage.  (Where is Engagement Ohio?  Half way between Datin’ and Marryin’) To leave intimacy for pregnancy.. And that takes the courage to turn.

Faith, as human response, is a decision, a choice, that inevitably includes some risk.  As D. Bonhoeffer wrote on this passage, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”

And A. Schweitzer:  “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

And E. Kasemann said, “Faith means a continuous exodus from established positions.”

In the exquisite recent film, The Theory of Everything, there comes a moment to turn.  Said his first wife, as she turned away from him, to Steven Hawking:  I have loved you…

It takes courage to turn–to morning prayer, to daily study, to weekly worship, to monthly giving, to yearly faithfulness.  It takes a kind of courage to turn, to get up from a dormitory bed on Sunday morning, and file past all the sleeping sleepers, and get ready, and walk down Commonwealth Avenue, and find a seat in the back of the chapel, and bow for prayer.

A courage to turn, to turn away, to turn again, to turn out, to turn up.   To take another turn:  in a relationship, in a church membership, in a roommate relationship, in an abusive relationship.  Have we the courage to turn

As a society, when shall ever find the courage to turn away from gun violence?  Again this week, in Boston, we have ample reason to ask, and ample reason to seek the courage to turn, to turn away, to turn a corner, to turn round right.   People know this.  85% of Americans agree that back ground checks should be used for purchases at gun shows.  And:  81% of gun owners agree.  When will we ever learn?  When will we ever learn?  As a people we await the courage to turn.

Today’s Gospel comes from a church that held onto a memory of departure, from the evangelist who reflected on departure, and from a recognition in our own experience that includes the courage to depart, to leave, to turn.

When true simplicity is gained

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed

To turn, turn will be our delight

Til by turning, turning, we come round right

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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The Embodiment of Goodness

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

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John 1:43-51

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Many of you will remember the stories about Jesus calling his twelve disciples to follow him. As reported in this morning’s gospel reading, Philip was so impressed with meeting Jesus and being asked to join his movement that he did what any one of us would have done. In a very excited manner, he passed the word onto another namely Nathaniel saying,  “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”   

Nathaniel was not immediately impressed but responded skeptically saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was a prejudiced question because the answer is implied in the question. Philip seemingly ignored the question and simply responded by saying, “Come and see,” clearly implying that after meeting Jesus he would change his mind. And, accordingly, that is what happened. Soon after meeting Jesus, Nathaniel confessed that he was the son of God; the King of Israel. Meeting the man himself had purged him of all his prejudices.

Now, we can rightly assume that many asked a similar question when they first heard about Martin Luther King, Jr. who came out of the racially segregated ghetto in Atlanta known as “Sweet Auburn.” Can anything good come out of Sweet Auburn? Or more generally, can anything good come out of America’s black ghettoes? The most convincing response is, “Come and see.”

I first heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in 1959  in Athens, Ohio at the founding meeting of the National Christian Student Federation of North America. He was then only thirty years old and already known internationally for his successful leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That conference became a launching pad for students as they entered the decade-long struggles for moral transformation in the churches, universities, and the military industrial complex symbolized by the War in Vietnam. It was a tumultuous period to say the least. Needless to say, I was happy to be part of that generation where most of us seemed to view ourselves as agents of social change.

Many asked the question then “can anything good come out of a coalition of Christian and secular students allied with the civil rights struggles of black Americans, guided by the inspiration of Martin Luther King, Jr., the spiritual music of ancestral African slaves, and the theme song of uncertain origins,  “We Shall Overcome.” The only answer then and now was, “come and see.”

Clearly, the good in history is always ambiguous. What is good for some is not good for all. The legal, social, and political progress of the Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago, was good for the growth of the black middle class but not good for those millions of blacks who were left behind to stagnate in the isolated cauldrons of the nation’s inner cities. There they are identified collectively as social pariahs. They comprise disproportionate numbers of the homeless and  jobless, drug addicts and dealers, armed criminal gangs who kill and abuse one another as a way of life. Many rightly view our inner cities as war zones where no one trusts anyone and very limited resources are made available to heal the social and psychological pathologies that flourish in that environment.

Tragically, both the residents and the law enforcement officers view each other as irreconcilable enemies. That mutual disrespect has led to widespread killings of unarmed blacks by the police which in turn has given rise to a new social protest movement inspired by such tragic symbols of defeat such as “Hands up; don’t shoot;” “I can’t breathe;” and such  novel practices as  “die-ins.”   The names and images of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner  Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley have become the embodied symbols of this movement’s protest against the police,. Yet, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s twitter lists 76 unarmed blacks who were killed in police custody between 1999 and 2014. That list includes nine black women. Hopefully, such names as Sharisse Francis of NY, Shantel Davis of Brooklyn, Aiyana Jones of Detroit, Tarika Wilson of Lima, Ohio, Miriam Carey of Washington, D.C. and more will gain public visibility alongside their brothers.

Let me hasten to say that numerous moral issues attend these cases of alleged police violence that cry out for public redress. Needless to say, perhaps, much needs to be done to transform an assumed war zone into a civil space of mutual respect and trust between police and citizens. In my judgment, that can only be done by eradicating poverty in our inner cities and cleansing those urban spaces of stigma. Ending poverty  was one of the unmet goals Martin Luther King, Jr. set for his first March on Washington in 1963 as well as the second March on Washington that he was planning at the time of his assassination.

Long before Martin Luther King, Jr. was called to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, blacks had viewed racial discrimination and segregation as a moral, social, legal, economic, political, and spiritual problem that required a comprehensive approach for its solution. Thus, the combined force of his moral insight, academic knowledge, theological wisdom and rhetorical skill combined to convince many that the depth and breadth of the problem constituted a malignancy that would surely destroy the nation itself if it were left unchecked.

The residue of that same problem remains deeply embedded in this nation’s fabric and wholly confirmed by the experiences of all African Americans regardless of our wealth, power or social standing. We all know that we are perceived as actual or potential threats to white America’s psychological ethos that forces it into a permanent posture of self-defense.

Now, truly good actions need to be interpreted so as to reveal their moral, political and spiritual significance. That is what Dr. King did so well and why his words have become such an enduring global treasure. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Our present situation longs for a similar interpreter. Those who claim that we have no need for such are grossly mistaken.

Clearly, the cause of our present problems is the same as those Dr. King confronted. Alas, effective cures have not been found for every malignancy whether  biological or social.

Clearly, all who shun the spiritual dimension of the struggle for racial justice fail to understand the depth of the problem we face.  It is a problem deeply rooted in our nation’s spirit: one that laws alone cannot solve; that days of service alone cannot correct; that protests alone cannot cure; that education alone cannot heal; that incarceration alone cannot repair; that jobs alone cannot restore; that wars on drugs alone cannot eradicate.

As with every spiritual problem the answer lies in bringing the human spirit into conformity with the spirit of God who alone is able to usher in a new world order; one shaped by the universal principles of love and justice the embodiment of which constitutes what is truly good. Those who have seen its embodiment must do what Philip told Nathaniel to do: “Come and see.”  Such a prophet is greatly needed in our day. Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied that goodness fifty years ago. Let us pray for the coming of a new embodiment of that much needed goodness in our day.

– The Rev. Dr. Peter J. Paris, Walter G. Muelder Visiting Professor of Social Ethics, Boston University School of Theology

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The Moment Between Chaos and Creation

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

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Mark 1:4-11

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In the Beginning….this is a phrase we hear so often when we read the scriptures. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. In the beginning was the word and the word was with god and the word was god. It seems especially appropriate to uplift the very beginning of our canonized scripture-Genesis 1:1, at the beginning of a New Year. We are a society of resolution, of movement, of goal-setting. At the beginning of each new year we resolve to lose weight, watch less TV, be more productive, and take on various tasks and endeavors that are often forgotten by the early snows of February. This year, I was so over-zealous that I wrote in my journal 12 different resolutions I wanted to accomplish, and then divvied them up and assigned them separate months-like 12 little Lenten projects throughout my year. This urge to be productive, planned, and off and running this time of year runs deep in our bones. In many ways the rush of things, the ebb and flow of the tides of our lives are inescapable and unending. Even in the cyclical endlessness of life, we still have this deep yearning for beginnings.  We find the need to begin each year anew-but our beginnings are often hurried, rushed, hustling-and bustling us to newer things, better selves.

So it is important for us to consider what happened in THE BEGINNING? Genesis 1 reads “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind of God swept over the face of the waters.”The translation of this passage, historically and due to the elegant language of the King James Version has often been understood as “In the Beginning, God created the heavens and earth”-giving the impression that God created something out of nothing, a common latin phrase for this creatio ex nihilo. This would mean that there was nothing before God first created the heavens and the earth.  But many Hebrew and old testament scholars see the Hebrew as perhaps being more grammatically accurate to say ‘God began creating the heavens and the earth’,  in this reading of the text the passage would hold the notion of God creating out of chaos-the latin term for which is ordo ab chao. This translation would imply that the universe already existed, and God creates purpose, order, and light within it. Creation, then, is in fact, a re-ordering of an already chaotic universe. It is this ordo ab chao reading that I want us to spend some time with today.

In Genesis, this universe is a formless void, a watery deep swirling and teeming with disorder, chaos, with no purpose and no life. The earth is wild, it is unknown, it is a dark and watery abyss. And yet, there is this moment in between ‘the beginning’ and God saying ‘Let there be light’. There is a quiet moment between the chaos of that world below and the creation yet to come. In that space, in those moments the wind, which in Hebrew is the same word for the spirit, ruah, is hovering, brooding just above the earth, sweeping across the water. I love this image- like a hen protecting her eggs, the holy spirit, broods, clutches, hovers above the abyss. The divine spirit encompasses a chaotic earth, waiting for that moment of birth, that moment of beautiful creation. IN our world today, when we experience chaos we crave creation-we feel rushed and urged to manage, order, begin again, start anew, dissolve and resolve and move forward from the chaos in our lives with immediacy. But in the same way there is a breath between 11:59 on New Years Eve and 12:00 a.m. on New years day, there is a space in between.  There is this one beautiful moment between chaos and creation where the spirit of God is so near to us, hovering over us, urging us to give into the beauty ahead of us.

Every year, we observe merrily as Christ is born in a manger on a chilly night amidst the hay bales and the donkeys (and if you have ever seen the film Love Actually-you know there were at least a couple of lobsters present at the birth of Jesus), we follow the star with the Magi and bestow gifts and grace upon our gentle Jesus. And suddenly, out of nowhere, liturgically it is Christ’s baptism Sunday. Last week, the Magi were bringing frankincense, myrrh, gold on a young toddler, and this week we see a fully grown, adult, Jesus going into the wilderness to seek out John the Baptist and begin his ministry. Before Jesus’ extraordinary life and teachings can begin, we find this separate moment that is neither here nor there, neither childhood, nor grown Rabbi-but a space in between. A quiet moment at the river, A chance for renewal, a baptism. John the Baptist is emanating the prophet Elijah by wearing camel’s hair and baptizing people in the wilderness. This image of wilderness is supposed to remind us of the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness after the exodus. Wandering, lost, and barely surviving in desert heat, the wilderness for us is an image of chaos.

And yet Jesus seeks out John in that dry wilderness, in that chaos, to be baptized by him. In the Jewish tradition at this time, baptism was a source of renewal into the covenant of Israel-a repentance of sins so that one could be washed clean to join once again the people of God.  Also at this time, the Jewish tradition of baptism was widely self-service. People would go to the water and baptize themselves, by dipping their head under water, or sprinkling themselves with water from head to foot. They simply needed to be baptized in the presence of a prophet, like John the Baptist.  But when Jesus approaches, he asks John to baptize him, the physicality and vulnerability of this gesture cannot be overstated. In the space between the chaos of the wilderness and the creation of Jesus’ life as Rabbi-as minister, in that quiet moment, in that space-Jesus is held in the arms of his fellow human and washed clean. In that in-between moment, the same God that calls forth life from the primordial deep and dark waters in Genesis 1, calls Jesus to new birth out of to the waters of baptism.

Sometimes, creating that space between chaos and creation is not always easy for us, sometimes we need someone to help us center down. We fill our lives up with meaningful work, deep relationships, and required daily tasks and often, even at the beginning of a New Year, don’t give ourselves a chance to reflect, to really linger in reflect. Howard Thurman, who was once Dean of this Chapel and preached from this pulpit for many years, was a mystic man of faith, a compassionate mentor to many, and a slow searching man. I read earlier this week a story in Dr. Walter Fluker’s book “Ethical Leadership” about Howard Thurman and his relationship to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thurman writes in his autobiography that he often had gentle premonitions, deep soul-callings, to engage with people who were in a time of trouble. When he  was 29 years old, just a young, fervent, and fiery preacher talking about justice, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was stabbed in Harlem at a book signing. Thurman felt a deep spiritual need to go to him, to visit with King in the hospital.  During his visit Howard Thurman urged Martin Luther King to take even more rest than the doctor’s prescribed,  he urged him to take 4 more weeks to be exact to reassess his purpose, try to understand his cause, to rest his body spirit and mind, and to find healing.  King did heed his advice, and unique to the rest of his life, adopted a brief time of quietitude, meditation, and stillness. He delivered no speeches, went to no meetings, and did not take up agenda items for the civil rights movement at that time.  After the time had passed, he was re-invigorated towards the cause of the civil rights movement with clear and determined understanding of his purpose and mission within the organization. And the rest as we know, is history. The moment between chaos and creation offered Dr. King a chance to find his own renewal, his own sense of presence in the Spirit.

When one of my students found out that I was preaching a couple of weeks ago they asked , “you are going to use Rilke again, aren’t you?” (I couldn’t tell if she was exacerbated or excited-but I mostly was thrilled she remembered one thing from my previous sermons), so as I have finished up my year-long journey with Rilke as a spiritual guide, I will include him again. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of the human nature to rush and press on despite the need for stillness, despite the need for a space in between, Rilke wrote-

We set the pace.
But this press of time –
take it as a little thing
next to what endures.

All this hurrying
soon will be over.
Only when we tarry
do we touch the holy.

Young ones, don’t waste your courage
racing so fast,
flying so high.

See how all things are at rest –
darkness and morning light,
blossom and book.

I find that our world is plagued with moments of voidless dark, watery abyss, dry wilderness. In the face of an ever-present cultural racism, mass incarceration, Ebola, The recent attacks on a newspaper in Paris, France, and the numerous other tragedies on our screens, in our newspapers, and on our hearts,  -how could we deny the deep and foreboding presence of chaos in our world? Rilke reminds us that we need these moments between chaos and creation, where the Spirit hovers over us, waiting to be pulled in, touched,  embraced, and intertwined with our spirits. When we forget to create this sacred space and time, we can get overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the chaos or overwhelmed by creation. I remember when I first read in the news about the tragic and terrible school shooting in Peshawar Pakistan, where just a few weeks ago, over 140 school children were murdered in an act of terrorism. I saw this picture in a news article of a pair of empty shoes laying on a bloodstained school auditorium floor and I became completely overwhelmed with grief in the chaos of that terrible act. I cried, and thought of all the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, and of the parent who must have helped to tie those shoes in the morning. I truly felt that I was grieving, and at a loss for our world. I saw the darkness and the voids of abyss and felt overwhelmed.

When I got into my office the next day I had a phone call from a thoughtful and courageous Boston University student, who was from Pakistan and she wanted to organize a vigil, a time for prayer, silence, and presence amidst such atrocity. The student said that in the face of not knowing at all how to cope with this, a vigil seemed ‘just the right thing to do right now.’ So the next night, in the middle of exam week, I gathered with over 50 students-most of which were from Pakistan or had family from Pakistan-and we created that in-between space. A space between the chaos of violence and the creation of hope-it was simple, it was quiet, it was a lit candle, and a tearful prayer, and a lesson on peace from the Q’uran.  I felt so full of the spirit in those moments, so close the brooding bosom of God. I am so grateful to those student leaders who called together for this moment of vigil prayer. I knew that the time for creation would come-the time when I would want to find hope and purpose and ways to help create a sustainable solution for the terror that often plagues our world and our children, but just then-that cold December night just before Christmas-I needed to abandon the chaos, and delay the creation, to exist in the in-between moment of stillness, peace, quiet, solidarity, and prayer to be reminded of how close the Spirit is to us, and how much we can rest in the Divine when we are in need.

This moment in between chaos and creation is not a passive moment, or meant to be seen as a privileged moment of removing yourself from the situation and ignoring the reality of a broken and bleeding world. Rilke’s poem says “only when we tarry do we touch the holy.” The word tarry is not a passive word – but an active verb. It is synonymous with the word Sojourn-to live temporarily. These in-between moments are not places we can stay, but still places where we should actively live. Furthermore, this is not an easy action – holding yourself in this temporary stillness is sometimes more difficult than jumping from chaos to make order.  In this action between the moment of chaos and creation we have the opportunity to be opened up in transformative ways. To tarry in the in-between is not doing nothing, it is doing something. Let the noise subside and in the silence and the stillness be ready for the sound of God, be ready to be found, be ready to be made new, re-created in the truest way. Only from the silence a word is spoken, only from the stillness, is a movement created.

-The Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain for International Students

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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The Marsh Spirit

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

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Matthew 2:1-12

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Preface

 ‘And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.’ (Matthew 2: 12)

A dream like mist settles on us in the hearing of the Christmas story.   The strange world of the Bible causes us to look twice, to think twice.   Our dreams themselves become dreams, dreams squared, ‘y los suenos suenos son’, come Christmas.   For a few moments in worship, or a day in reverie, or a week in travel, for a time at the end of the year, and at the start of the year, you may be brought once again into the mystery, the uncanny actuality of our living, our being.  We are showered with a dream, a dream like mist.

Then it is not a stretch at all for us to hear of the wise men going home by another way, warned, as the Bible says, ‘in a dream’.  They are dim, shadow figures from the distant past, or from a stylized memory from an ancient past.  In a dream.  Warned in a dream, guided in a dream, carried forward in a dream.

A dream like mist settles on us in the hearing of the ancient tales at Christmas.   We are moved, if we are moved, not just by intellectual argument, but by intuitive insight.  We are moved, if we are moved, in the dream like mist of this dreamy season, not by reasoned argument alone or in the main, but by instinctual grasp, a grasp of the way in which we ourselves are grasped, even grabbed, by the Gospel.  And so, it may be, come Epiphany Sunday, that we too will bring forth personal devotion, our communal celebration, our remembered sense of justice—gold, frankincense and myrrh.

A Way Forward

Before the Christ Child we present our gold of personal devotion.  You may have an inkling of a new way in a new year.   If so, a few initial preparations are in order.  The life of faith upon which journey you are entering proceeds best in company.  There are very few free lance Christians.  You will want to worship come Sunday.  You can start of course by listening to this or another broadcast, week by week.  Hearing the lessons and the music, attending to the prayers and sermon, finding over time the way into the language, grammar and syntax of the Gospel through the weekly practice of prayer and listening, of beauty and holiness, in the company of other fellow travelers.  Worship on Sunday.  You will want to find a small group in which you may learn others’ names, and find yourself called by name.   One might be simply the small group who come before worship to sit quietly in the sanctuary in prayer.  Over time others will see and know you, and you them.  Or in an adult study group, or a traditional bible study, or a mission oriented group or something special for internationals or Methodists or Lutherans or gay people.  You could start by having coffee with a group of others following worship, downstairs.  Gather in a group.  You will want to try out the generosity of faith by giving.    Of course you can use the collection plate, please do.  But there are other ways to give that may be more fit for you.  You may read about a project or mission that calls out to you.  Give some support.  You may be invited to volunteer in a service ministry.  Give some time.  You may find yourself attracted to a nearby library or soup kitchen or day care center or tutoring program.  Give some effort.  Practice generosity.  Worship, gather, give.  Worship, gather, give.  Worship, gather, give.  Start again each Sunday.  The dreams at the heart of Christmas do help you find your way home, though in a different manner, perhaps, than the manner in which you have been living.   The life of faith upon which journey you enter now proceeds best in the company of others.  Worship, gather, give.

The Christmas Gift

Before the Christ Child we present our frankincense of communal Christmas celebration.Our spirit at Marsh Chapel is quickened by the gift of Christmas.  This school year, each first Sunday of the month, we have worked at interpreting the local spirit around us here at Marsh Chapel.  They are meant, in the long run, to be read as one catena, one lengthened sermon, knit together in sacrament and song.  There is a particular spirit of this place and community.  Incarnation, life, is a feature of this spirit, which we probe today, as in other months, Inquiry, Hymnody, Recollection, Patience.  And so,  Life.

For reasons missional, theological and spiritual it is timely for us to receive the gift of Christmas.  You as a congregation in these years have labored so.  You have opened the Chapel for Christmas Eve, even though the University is closed.  That is good.  You have added a second Christmas Eve noon service.  That is good.  You have presented your Lessons and Carols twice.  That is good.  You have offered a blue Christmas service, various festive and festival open houses, and even a daily electronic Advent devotional.  All this is so good.  You are working to make the Marsh spirit as lively at Christmas as it is already at Easter.

One reason is missional.  This is the one time of year, in a post religious culture, in which people who otherwise may have no particular religious perspective may be open to the journey of faith.  Singing a carol.  Lighting a candle.  You who already know the psalms, and have your favorite, remember the parables and identify your best one, recite the Lord’s prayer and sing the hymns of faith:  remember that others have yet to receive the first course, the first helping, the first meal of faith.  Christmas opens the door like no other season, and our doors should be fully open too.

A second reason is theological.  We need to balance Easter with Christmas.  We need to balance redemption with creation.  We need to balance resurrection with incarnation.  For our own spirit at Marsh Chapel to be whole, we need as full a nativity as we have a holy week.  Most congregations struggle in the opposite direction.   You need both stories, both wings to fly.

The early church told two stories about Jesus.  The first about his death.  The second about his life.  The first, about the cross, is the older and more fundamental.  The second, about the manger, is the key to the meaning of the first, the eyeglasses which open full sight of the first, the code with which to decipher the first.

Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture.  That is the first story.  How we handle this story, later in the year, come Lent and Easter, is a perilous and serious responsibility.

The first story, the death story, the story of Jesus’ death, another season’s work, needs careful, careful handling. 

Later in the year we shall return to story one.  But at Christmas, we listen for story two, the story of Jesus’ life, the story of Jesus.

Who was Jesus?  What life did his death complete?  How does his word heal our hurt?  And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.

Without the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke of Jesus’ life—his teaching, his healing, his preaching, his ministry—Christianity based only on Paul and John would have become a kind of Gnosticism, as John Ashton long ago noted (UFG, 238)

This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and is told among us to interpret the first.  Christmas is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven.  Christmas in a violent world is meant to remind us, all of us, that you do not need to leave the world in order to love God. Christmas is meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all.  Christmas is meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had were Lent, Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Vigil and Easter monring.  And the Christmas images are the worker bees in this theological hive.

There is a further, a spiritual reason for us to fully honor Christmas, Christmastide, Epiphany and the gift of Christmas.  Christmas carries a patent universality, a birth story that readily enters the hearts and minds of people from many religious backgrounds and from no particular religious perspective.  The author of Ephesians writes that ‘through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known’.  Christmas is our handshake with the rest of the religions of the globe, and in our time, such a greeting and embrace is a daily need.  Birth narratives are familiar to Christians, but also to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, and many others, including those who stand aside from all religious traditions.

With great effort, the ancient writers joined the God of Creation with the God of Redemption.  The coming of the Savior does not limit the divine care to the story of redemption, but weaves the account of redemption into the fabric of creation.  There is more to the Gospel than the cross.  The ancient writers sense this and say it with gusto:  angels to locate Jesus on earth; shepherds to locate Jesus among the poor; kings, so on Epiphany Sunday today, to honor and empower Jesus on earth; a poor mother to locate physically the birth of Jesus in the womb of earth, and outside, and in a manger, and among the poor.

Easter may announce power but Christmas names place.  Jesus died the way he did on earth because he lived the way he did on earth.  Jesus lived the way he did so that he could die the way he did.  That is, it is not only the power of Christ, but the presence of Christ, too, which you affirm.  Not just his death, but his life, too.

The lovely decorated Christmas tree in your living room, with its natural grace adorned by symbolic beauty, is meant to connect the God of Creation with the God of Redemption.

In the Flesh

Before the Christ Child we present our shared, historic, remembered affirmation of liberty and justice—for all.  Ours is a flickering remembrance of what Isaiah did foretell, ‘nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn’.  Our region and country lost a powerful voice this week, speaking of life and incarnation and redemption in creation.  In closing I mention him, to honor his formative influence on me and others.  When I wonder about the cost of honest speech, I remember his annual veto of the death penalty in New York State.  When I question the value of self-criticism and self-doubt, I think of his true- to- self, unapologetic brooding.  When I rue the hurt of lost votes and lost programs I think of his stamina.  When I wonder what epitaph to which I should aspire, I think of his chosen phrase, ‘he tried’ and his favorite title, ‘participant’.  Other than my dad’s voice, his is one or the one I will most miss.  Mario Cuomo died New Year’s Day.

About 20 years ago, when the Carousel Mall in Syracuse NY was still new, a religious temple built, and now being rebuilt, for the gods of getting and spending and laying waste of powers, 400 people gathered in the Mall’s top floor room, to enjoy breakfast, the view, and the featured speaker, then Governor Mario Cuomo. I was given a ticket and invited to go, and when you are in the ministry, you go when and where you are invited.

He began with light banter, wondering how in the midst of state recession the local developers had found the capital to build, and teasing them about ‘looking into it’.  He was in good humor, though he had hardly a supporter in the room.  And he was humorous, glad to be present, and glad to speak. He told about meeting President Reagan for the first time.  As he crossed the room to be introduced the jolly President said, ‘You have no need to introduce this man.  I would know him anywhere.  A great American, leader, and a great Italian American.  I am proud to greet Lee Iacocca at any time’.  He told about his parents coming through Ellis Island, penniless and speaking no English (he added that his mother even then hoped her son would become governor of the state!  Ane he remembered Emma Lazarus…)  He spoke knowingly about the needs of central New York, but also had to spend time acknowledging the shortcomings that soon would bring his defeat.  He began at 8:20 and I did not look at my watch until 9:15.  I believe it is the most powerful public oration I have personally heard, and it was delivered without a single note.  As George Eliot might have said:  “ingenious, pithy and delivered without book”.  Just in terms of rhetoric, it was sheer, delightful excellence.

He has been on my mind this weekend, and his voice has been reverberating again, as many mourn his death.

He concluded that morning by talking, as he had in 1984, about Two Cities, one set on a hill, and one set far below.  Two Countries, one rich and one poor.  Two Nations, one for the many well to do, and one for all the others—the poor, the frail, the elderly, the disinherited, the minority.  Two Realities, as different as night and day. His words sound very contemporary:

In many ways we are a shining city on a hill…

But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory.  But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate…

In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn’t show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair in the faces that (we) don’t see, in the places that (we) don’t visit in (our) shining city…

It was a striking kind of sermon to deliver, at the height of economic wellbeing in that part of the state, a sort of Robin Hood homily for the Sheriffs of Nottingham in the Carousel Mall.  It was a Christmas sermon, even though it occurred later in the year.  I doubt that more than a handful of those present ever did vote for him.  And in fact, he was defeated and out of office a year or so later.  Yet his prophetic, principled, out of fashion and favor voice kept before us, before us all, those whom we are sometimes inclined to neglect or forget. There are things that we just have to keep steadily before us, not forget, not avoid, and not neglect.   Who will help us to do this now?  I wonder whose voice will take the place of his?

Coda

            Gold. Incense.  Myrrh.  Devotion. Celebration.  Remembrance. A dream like mist settles on us in the hearing of the ancient tales at Christmas.   We are moved, if we are moved, not just by intellectual argument but by intuitive insight.  We are moved, if we are moved, in the dream like mist of this dreamy season, not by reasoned argument alone or in the main, but by instinctual grasp, a grasp of the way in which we ourselves are grasped, even grabbed by the Gospel.

‘And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.’ (Matthew 2: 12)

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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